So much can happen in 365 days, and in the case of food and dining news, 2014 was no exception in Denver. Colorado continued to put itself out there on the national scene, awards were won, lots of places opened, a few closed, and new hotspots emerged. With 2015 underway, here's a chance to reflect on the 10 biggest stories last year, listed in roughly chronological order.
The Year of Openings
It was a very, very busy year for restaurant openings. By Cafe Society's count, the Denver metro saw nearly 300 restaurant, bar, and specialty market openings in 2014. The abundance made food editor Amanda Faison's job difficult in choosing 5280 Magazine's 25 Best Restaurants, and it was a theme for the year that carries throughout this whole list. From Work & Class to Stoic & Genuine, Sarto's to Bistro Barbès and To the Wind Bistro, and everything in between, it was certainly a banner year for Denver's dining scene.
RiNo Shines as a Hotspot
The Source helped propel RiNo onto the map in late 2013, and the neighborhood only became hotter throughout the year. From Thrillist naming it as one of the country's 18 best food neighborhoods, to the majority of industry influencers citing it as their pick for Denver's best dining neighborhood last year, it's clear RiNo is the place to be. To that end, this enclave was home to new spots like Work & Class—which kicked things off in January and has seen plenty of praise since—tiny but delicious pizza spot Cart-Driver, casual community bar RiNo Yacht Club at the Source, Mockery Brewing, Will Call tavern in the Industry development, Meadowlark Kitchen, Tengu ramen shop, and more. And there's even more to come in 2015, from soon-to-open Park Burger RiNo, Americana-themed bar Finn's Manor, Bar Fausto, Sean Kenyon's American Bonded, jazz supper club Nocturne, and beyond.
The Rise of Ramen
It started with places like Bones in Capitol Hill and LoHi hotspot Uncle, but ramen became even more popular in 2014. In April, chef Jeff Osaka first announced his plans for Osaka Ramen for an August opening (which has since been pushed to March 2015), even hosting a ramen pop-up in May. Then, August saw the opening of modern Japanese spot Tokio in the burgeoning Prospect neighborhood, with Tengu coming along to RiNo in December. And in the same vein, chef Lon Symensma's upcoming South Broadway eatery, Cho77, will soon be serving noodle bowls and dim sum.
Continued Recognition from the James Beard Foundation
The prior year, Colorado brought home two James Beard awards via chef Jennifer Jasinski and Frasca Food and Wine. And while in 2014 Aspen's the Little Nell was the only one of seven overall Colorado semi-finalists to move on as a finalist for its wine program, in May local author Adrian Miller took home a journalism prize for his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time in the Reference and Scholarship category. Additionally, five Denver chefs—Paul Reilly, Justin Brunson, Alex Seidel, Brandon Foster, and Jeff Osaka—came together for a JBF dinner at Devil's Thumb Ranch in October. Mark Fischer (Harman's Eat & Drink, the Pullman in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale's Phat Thai and Town) and Trillium's Ryan Leinonen brought teams to New York City to cook at the James Beard House in October and November, respectively.
Fast Casual Reaches New Heights
The fast-casual phenomenon was elevated this year by chef-driven versions. Chop Shop came on the scene in July under the guidance of chef Clint Wangsnes, who utilizes the sous-vide technique for cooking proteins like short ribs and chicken. Also in July, chef and restaurateur Troy Guard decided to close TAG Raw Bar on Larimer Square and revamp it as Bubu, a quick-service spot centering on build-your-own bowls with fresh and healthy ingredients. A second location is currently underway in Lowry, slated to open in February. Pizzeria Locale added an outpost in West Highland in October, and we'll likely see that brand continue to grow in 2015. As Biju's Little Curry Shop opened in December, chef/owner Biju Thomas was already talking expansion plans, and Jeff Osaka looks to follow suit with his upcoming Osaka Ramen concept.
Sean Kenyon Wins Bartender of the Year
Williams & Graham's Sean Kenyon had a big year in 2014, most notably being named American Bartender of the Year at the Spirited Awards, where the speakeasy was also a finalist in two categories: Best American Bar Team and Best American Cocktail Bar. After the honor that took place during July's Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, The New York Times' Robert Simonson called it "likely to be biggest thing yet to happen to [the] Denver cocktail scene, attention-wise" in a tweet. In October another accolade arrived, in the form of Williams & Graham being named one of the 50 best bars in the world by Drinks International. Kenyon also announced plans for the Occidental, a more casual offshoot of Williams & Graham next door, and American Bonded in RiNo, both forthcoming this year.
· Sean Kenyon of Williams & Graham: Bartender of the Year [EDEN]
· Road to Tales of the Cocktail: Randy Layman's Journal [EDEN]
· Sean Kenyon of Williams & Graham on Who Teaches Your Bartenders Their Craft [EDEN]
Union Station Is Reborn
Even though the grand opening had to be pushed back, Union Station still made a splash this July as the revitalization project was unveiled. Among the upgrades like a new underground bus terminal, Amtrak station, and the swanky Crawford Hotel, came several eateries and bars, with chef Jennifer Jasinski's seafooder Stoic & Genuine leading the charge. The terminal also welcomed outposts of The Kitchen Next Door, Snooze, and Fresh Exchange, plus Fruition chef/owner Alex Seidel's Mercantile Dining & Provision, the Terminal Bar, classic cocktail spot the Cooper Lounge upstairs, and more. And even the surrounding area in LoDo benefited, with the additions of Thirsty Lion, Protein Bar, and Hopdoddy Burger Bar. Up next: Boulder-based Chinese fast-casual Zoe Ma Ma will soon come to the One Union Station building.
· First Look: Highly Anticipated Stoic & Genuine Opens Today in Union Station [EDEN]
· Mercantile Dining & Provision Is Now Serving at Union Station [EDEN]
· The Cooper Lounge Now Pouring At Union Station [EDEN]
Jeff Osaka Closes Twelve
In a year that saw so many openings, it's surprising there weren't more shutters to report. But in August, chef Jeff Osaka announced he was closing his Ballpark restaurant, Twelve, at the end of that month. At the time, Osaka explained, "It's a little bittersweet but it's time to move forward and grow. This was my starter restaurant. Now it's time for something bigger and more modern." He also cited wanting to focus on Osaka Ramen, but said he would reopen Twelve in the future, potentially under a different name, but definitely in a new location; Butcher's Bistro later filled Twelve's old space. A couple months after Twelve's closure, Osaka revealed plans for another venture: Sushi Rama in RiNo.
Berkeley and Tennyson Street See a Resurgence
By mid-year it became evident that the Berkeley neighborhood was another part of town catching the eye of many chefs and restaurateurs, on Tennyson Street in particular. Linger and Root Down's Justin Cucci announced in April his plans for a vegetarian- and vegan-friendly spot called Vital Root, which was met with plenty of excitement. By fall, the John's Garage project drew in Call to Arms Brewing from three Avery alums, plus second locations of Kaos Pizzeria and Uno Mas Taqueria y Cantina, all slated to open in 2015. It was also announced that the trifecta of Atomic Cowboy, Fat Sully's Pizza, and the Denver Biscuit Company would make a claim on the block. The Noshery also set up shop near Regis University, while Brazen took up residence on the border of Berkeley and West Highland. December also saw a trio of openings in Block & Larder from the Freshcraft crew, the Royal burger bar, and a long-awaited Snarf's. And real buzz was generated when the Denver Cat Company came to Tennyson, making it the third cat cafe in the country.
Denver Restaurants Go National
Most people are familiar with Denver's contributions to the fast-casual world—Chipotle, Smashburger, and Modmarket, to name a few—but last year a handful of full-service restaurants established here expanded out of state. The Kitchen's mini-empire not only grew by two Kitchen Next Door concepts in Glendale and at Union Station, but also added The Kitchen in Chicago, which opened in October. That same month, Jax Fish House opened the doors to a location in Kansas City, becoming the only restaurant in Kansas with Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch partner status. And restaurateur Robert Thompson took Punch Bowl Social to Austin and Detroit, following a Portland branch in 2013. In the future we may also see chef and restaurateur Frank Bonanno bring concepts to places like Nashville, Dallas, or Kansas City.
· Boulder-Born The Kitchen Heads To Chi-Town On An Expansion Mission [EDEN]
· Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar Opens First Out-of-State Location [EDEN]
· Frank Bonanno Shutters Park Meadows Pizzeria, Plans Out-of-State Expansion [EDEN]